This article is part of our Going Against the Grain series, which tells the stories of companies bold enough to break business norms and try out new ideas. To explore the rest of the series, head here.
The summer has just begun for the employees of social enterprise 64 Million Artists.
The small business’s seven permanent staff and three freelancers have all been offered the month of August off, on full pay. This comes in addition to the 25 days of holiday its contracted staff already receive per annum.
Company CEO Jo Hunter says that it was important to offer people a chance to “stop and reset” after a challenging couple of years. She adds: “After the pandemic, everyone’s been struggling on and, although they’ve had little bits of leave, people haven’t had a chance to properly reset. We needed a month to do it.”
The decision was inspired by a blog post from American social psychologist and author Brené Brown on the Buddhist concept of the sacred pause. In her post, Brown explains that everyone in her organisation has been asked to take four weeks of paid vacation time this summer, in addition to their normal vacation time.
Hunter, who until recently had been suffering with symptoms of long Covid, had been considering taking time off. Similarly, another member of the senior team was contemplating taking a sabbatical. After reading Brown’s blog post, Hunter’s immediate response was to ask, “Why can’t we do the same?” She says: “As soon as we had the idea in our head, it was very difficult to say we’re not going to do this.”
After getting an “overwhelmingly positive response” from some key clients, Hunter was reassured that the policy could be given the green light.
What impact will an August break have on the business?
August is usually a quieter period for 64 Million Artists, which works with several universities that will be amid a summer break. Hunter explains that there are also longer-term projects that are coming to a natural conclusion ahead of 1 August, which made the possibility of shuttering the business for a month easier to manage.
She adds: “My instinct is that we wouldn’t have won any new business in August and I don’t expect it to have a major impact on our income. The only cost is the £35,000 of salaries that we’re spending that month, without any return in terms of work.”
The business recently implemented a four-day working week. In the first year since its introduction, turnover increased by £200,000 and, according to Hunter, productivity has increased and people are happier and “doing better work”.
The hope is that a shared summer holiday could spark a similarly positive impact on the business and its staff. Hunter says: “It’s an investment in our people. I think they’ll be more productive and focused when they come back. It’s also helped us concentrate on the work we need to complete before the end of July. The time off means we’re just more targeted about what we’re doing.”
In preparation for the time off, 64 Million Artists has been communicating with clients to ensure all necessary work is completed before its August break. Hunter is also conscious that staff will need to be supported to make sure that the business can “hit the ground running” when they return to their desks in September.
There will be concerns that the prospect of a month off work in August will make July a stressful period for people at the company. Hunter says: “It’s something to be conscious of and I do think we are busier.” But she adds: “It’s a bold decision. But for us, the positives by far outweigh any small negatives.”
The benefits of collective time off
Taking time off as a collective provides a different quality of rest, especially for leaders, Hunter says. “You know your inbox isn’t going to be full when you get back – and you don’t feel responsible for anyone else because no one else is working,” she adds.
Hunter hopes that the time away will also generate new inspiration. “I often have the best ideas when I’m doing something completely unrelated to work,” she says. “Hanging out with different people will hopefully bring me fresh ideas for the business too.”
Hunter is aware that taking a month off is not an option for every business. But she thinks leaders should consider ways to look after the wellbeing of their employees and protect them from burnout.
“Think about taking a collective pause to reflect on what the company has gone through over the pandemic, to rest and reset. It doesn’t need to be time off, there are other ways to support and protect your staff.”
This initial month of summer holiday is an experiment as part of the company’s pandemic response. If it goes well, it is expected to become an annual benefit for staff at 64 Million Artists.
“There will be lots of people who might think we’re just a small company and that this is a frivolous decision,” Hunter adds. “We’re not a fluffy business, we still have to make a bottom line. But when you take bold steps like this, it shows your employees that you really care and you’re putting their wellbeing first.”